The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

English: Photograph of Abraham Flexner
Abraham Flexner

“In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.

This concern, it turns out, is hardly new. In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF), originally published in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, American educator Abraham Flexner explores this dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism — in science, in education, and in human thought at large — to deliver a poignant critique of the motives encouraged in young minds, contrasting those with the drivers that motivated some of history’s most landmark discoveries.” (Brain Pickings).

Another Tick-Borne Disease to Guard Against

English: Adult deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. Č...

“Despite its many delights, summer also brings its fair share of pestilence. One, called babesiosis, has only recently been widely recognized as a potentially serious outdoor hazard. According to a very detailed study conducted on Block Island, R.I., it could eventually rival Lyme disease as the most common tick-borne ailment in the United States.” (NYTimes)

I have also just learned of a disease I had never heard of, called anaplasmosis, which is caused by a rickettsial organism also spread by tickbites. It was while starting to read about anaplasmosis that I noticed that there is alot on the radar screens just now about babesiosis.

Iain Sinclair: Games A ‘Smoke And Circuses’ Affair

June 2011 - Aerial photo of the Olympic Park m...

“Thousands of elite athletes have descended on London for the 2012 Olympic Games, and spectators the world over are tuning in to enjoy the action.

But five years’ worth of development has left some locals feeling invaded, and some austerity-weary Britons resenting the bill. Between construction and security, the British government’s budget has soared past $14 billion, about $10 billion over original projections.

East London, home to Olympic Park, the hub of the games, is also home to some of the poorest parts of England. Officials have touted the long-term benefits the games are bringing to the area, like low-income housing and better infrastructure. But author and longtime East London resident Iain Sinclair isn’t buying it.

Sinclair’s latest book is called Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics. He tells NPR’s Guy Raz that the 2012 Olympics have been challenging for the people living closest.” (NPR)

The Big Higgs Question

Steven Weinberg
Steven Weinberg

Preeminent physicist Steven Weinberg writes in that preeminent scientific journal, The New York Review of Books: “It is often said that what was at stake in the search for the Higgs particle was the origin of mass. True enough, but this explanation needs some sharpening.” (NYRblog). It turns out to be a succinct statement of why the Higgs boson was sought in the first place.

Study: HIV Undetectable in 2 Men After Bone Marrow Transplants

HIV Particle
HIV Particle (Photo credit: AJC1)

“…[R]esearchers suspect that bone marrow transplantation along with continuation of antiretroviral therapy resulted in the dramatic effects evident eight months post-transplant. They are scheduled to present these preliminary findings Thursday at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

HIV patients on antiretroviral therapy often achieve “undetectable viral loads,” meaning there are no virus particles in their blood. But they still have latent HIV in their lymphocytes, and if antiretroviral therapy were discontinued, the latent HIV could reactivate.” (

Six facts about guns, violence, and gun control

Summer's End. Lexington Green, 11 September 20...

“The aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado shootings has been thick with calls to avoid “politicizing” the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for “don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.”

Let’s be clear: This is a form of politicization… That said, it’s important to be clear about what Aurora is: A tragedy that may or may not tell us anything useful about the general trends in guns and violence in the United States. And so this post is about those trends, some of which may surprise you.”  (Washington Post, thanks to tom).

There’s a word for it: the smell of rain

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18:  A mobile device...

Petrichor  is the scent of rain on dry earth. The word is constructed from Greek, petra, meaning stone + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers, Bear and Thomas, for an article in the journal Nature.[1] In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent; ozone may also be present if there is lightning.”  (Wikipedia)

Are Warnings About the Side Effects of Drugs Making Us Sick?

Medicine Drug Pills on Plate

Steve Silberman: “…[A] provocative new report by Winfried Häuser, Ernil Hansen, and Paul Enck in the journal of the German Medical Association suggests that the side effects of some drugs, and the discomfort of certain medical procedures, may be inadvertently intensified by doctors and nurses trying to keep patients fully informed of the consequences of their medical care. The culprit behind this phenomenon is the nocebo effect.” (NeuroTribes).

Five Delusions About Our Broken Politics

united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web

Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein: “Finding an American who does not think our politics are dysfunctional is much harder these days than finding Waldo. Approval of Congress hovers around 10 percent, limited, John McCain often jokes, to “paid staff and blood relatives.” Of course, Congress rarely enjoys a high approval rating, even when things are operating well. But to the two of us, with more than 42 years each of experience immersed in the corridors of Washington at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, this dysfunction is worse than we have ever seen it, and it is not limited to Capitol Hill. The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix.

It is not going to be easy to find structural fixes to our problems because many of them flow from an increasingly corrosive culture, not just from institutional breakdowns. We have many ideas for significant reforms and other changes, but before we can consider remedies for our political dysfunction, we need to rid ourselves of much seductive wishful thinking. Here are five bromides to avoid.” (The American Interest Magazine).

Bill McKibben on why we’re losing the war against climate change

“If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice…” (Rolling Stone)

Autistic man survived desert ordeal on will power

Escalante River gorge approximately four miles...

“An autistic man who survived weeks in the Utah wilderness on snakes, frogs and roots described his ordeal as spiritual and said the desert was calling him.

“I’ve eaten things that would probably gross you out,” William LaFever told KSL-TV after his release Thursday from a St. George hospital, nearly 40 pounds lighter than his normal weight of 165. He boarded a bus for his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Authorities say the 28-year-old man is lucky to be alive after setting out for an estimated 150-mile journey from Boulder, Utah, to Page, Ariz., without a backpack full of gear he says was stolen, and with few provisions.

Garfield County deputies said LaFever was probably only 24 hours from dying when a search helicopter found him July 12, cooling off in the Escalante River in his underwear. LaFever said he spent nights shivering from cold.

“It was the most honest meditation I have ever done,” LaFever told KSL. “It wasn’t even a bad experience.”

Authorities estimated LaFever spent three weeks bushwhacking along the wild Escalante River, but the man says his ordeal lasted weeks longer. In a somewhat confusing account, he recalled setting out June 3.” (SFGate via Steve Silberman)

Names of infamy: deny killers the notoriety they seek

This is a photo of David Brin.
David Brin
FBI mugshot of Timothy McVeigh.
Timothy McVeigh

“Journalists and shrinks and the public fret over each killer’s declared motives, From Brevik’s islamophobia to Timothy McVeigh‘s war against government, to Al Qaeda suicide bombers, to the murderous students at Columbine High School who appeared to be seeking vengeance for bullying. Yet, when we step back and look for common threads, the emerging pattern seems to be less about specific hatreds, racism or anti-Semitism than frenzied, bloody tantrums staged by a string of losers with one common goal — to grab headlines…

…Courts already do have some authority to order name-changes. Suppose that power were widened — any criminal sentenced for a truly heinous crime could be renamed as part of his punishment, with a moniker that invites disdain… Who would choose the new names? Judges could get creative, or the public might be invited to suggest appropriate derogations.  Or something random might be the greatest punishment of all. However it’s done, won’t it make sense for ridicule to replace some of the grotesque fashionableness that’s now attached to terror? It would reflect society’s determination to allocate fame properly, to those who earn it. We would be saying — “You can’t win celebrity this way. By harming innocents, you’re only destroying your own name.” (– David BrinCONTRARY BRIN)

Via Shelby, who commented:

“Right. Show no photos of the actors, use ‘unsub’ or some other neutral, impersonal term for them, pay them no attention at all. That’s the way we treat the enemy killers in wars, after all, while we pay all of the attention (but still too little) to the victims.”


R.I.P. Alexander Cockburn at 71

The left loses one of its most outspoken straight-shooters. I have read Cockburn with delight since his Village Voice days. “Mr. Cockburn had, at various times, regular columns in ideologically disparate publications like The Nation and The Wall Street Journal and became known as an unapologetic leftist, condemning what he saw as the outrages of the right but also castigating the American liberal establishment when he thought it was being timid.” (NYTimes obituary)

Night Sounds: The Gamelan Music of Bali

gamelan in action

“Larry Reed presents a selection of recordings of gamelan music, recorded in Bali, Indonesia in 1979. The program begins with a brief field recording of frogs, crickets and other night creatures, the rhythm of which it has been suggested served as a template for early gamelan ensembles. We then hear a “Pemungkah,” the introductory music of a traditional Balinese shadow play, performed by a gender wayang, the smallest (four piece) of the gamelan ensembles. This is followed by an example of a larger 20 piece gamelan orchestra called gamelan angklung, recorded in Tunjuk, Indonesia in 1979. The program concludes with an example of gamelan leko, used as accompaniment for legong dancers, and also recorded in Tunjuk.” (

“Now I Am Become Shiva, The Destroyer of Worlds.”

“Most films of nuclear explosions are dubbed. If they do contain an actual audio recording of the test blast itself (something I’m often suspicious of — I suspect many were filmed silently and have a stock blast sound effect), it’s almost always shifted in time so that the explosion and the sound of the blast wave are simultaneous.

This is, of course, quite false: the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound, and the cameras are kept a very healthy distance from the test itself, so in reality the blast wave comes half a minute or so after the explosion. Basic physics that even a non-technical guy like me can understand.

It’s rare to find footage where the sound has not been monkeyed with in post-processing. So I was pleased when a Russian correspondent sent me a link to footage digitized by the National Archives of a 1953 nuclear test. The footage is very raw: it hasn’t been edited much, and is a bit washed out, but the audio is still in “correct,” original sync.

Click the image to go to a YouTube edit of the video that I made. You can see the original via NARA’s page….

The video starts off pretty dark and muddled, but don’t let that turn you off. What’s interesting about this clip is not the visual aspects. The test looks like any old nuclear test, but with poor film quality.

The audio is what makes this great. Put on some headphones and listen to it all the way through — it’s much more intimate than any other test film I’ve seen. You get a much better sense of what these things must have been like, on the ground, as an observer, than from your standard montage of blasts. Murmurs in anticipation; the slow countdown over a megaphone; the reaction at the flash of the bomb; and finally — a sharp bang, followed by a long, thundering growl. That’s the sound of the bomb.” (Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog)

If You Are Hit By Two Atomic Bombs, Should You Have Kids?

“…[R]oughly 150 people were unlucky enough to be in both in Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the bombs hit, but very few, only a handful, were in both blast zones, within 1.5 mile zone of intense radiation. Across Japan, the assumption was that these people shouldn’t have children, that the gamma ray damage would be too heavy, too long-lasting to make child bearing safe.” The story of one man who beat the odds. (Krulwich Wonders… : NPR)

Oxytocin is not a love drug. Don’t give it to kids with autism


Oxytocin hype might be storming the heavens, but oxytocin science is still finding its footing. Early studies certainly bathed the hormone in a shiny glow, but later ones uncovered a darker side. The “love hormone” fosters trust and generosity in some situations but envy and bias in others, and it can produce opposite effects in different people. A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic “moral molecule” moniker.” (Slate)


You may have seen a comment entered by a ‘Mike Hunter’ (who did not have the courage of his convictions to include an email address), which amounted to nothing more than a rude epithet. Thanks for the nomination, Mr. Hunter, but I respectfully decline; I have deleted the comment and will do so again if ever there are further such postings from this or any other username. I know my response here gratifies the urge of such trolls to provoke; sorry to disappoint but I won’t do so again, your comment will just inexplicably disappear. I suggest that if Mr. Hunter or other readers takes offense at any of my views, they meet minimal standards of intelligence by discussing the issues and not just calling names if they want their comments to survive my editing.

Mitt Romney: Release Your Tax Returns

Mitt Romney - Caricature

“A Swiss bank account. Offshore investments in the Cayman Islands. And now evidence that he may have lied about when he left his role at Bain Capital. What is Mitt Romney hiding? Romney needs to fully release his tax returns and stop hiding the truth about how he makes his money and where he stashes it. Sign the petition to ask Romney to release his tax returns to show the American people who he really is.” (

‘I get knocked down…’

Chumbawamba Break Up: “They started out, implausibly enough, as an anarcho-punk collective, paragons of the same scene that Crass helped to birth. They’d been around for years, experimenting with different sounds and ideas before signing a deal with EMI and stumbling into fleeting international fame with “Tubthumping.” They kept soldiering on after that song became a kitsch relic, too, and they’re only now announcing that they’re disbanding.” (Stereogum).

Some Discussion of Higgs Boson Discovery

Interactions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Selected links:

Here is my own (small) connection to the Higgs story. When theoretical physicist Peter Higgs proposed the existence of the Higgs Field and predicted the particle in 1964, he was on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh. (Higgs projected that the particle would not be discovered in his lifetime.) The University has just announced the establishment of the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics, with a $1.2 million annual budget. And my son is about to start as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh this fall.


C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

Kevin Kelly: “Years back, in CS Lewis’ essay ‘On The Reading of Old Books,’ I encountered a suggestion that has stuck with me ever since. Lewis posited that each generation of humanity takes certain things for granted: assumptions that go unexamined and unquestioned because they are commonly held by all. It was Lewis’ opinion that reading books written by prior generations would help us to see around these generational blind spots.

In her new book, Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, FS Michaels suggests that just such a blind spot has, over the course of generations, come to dominate the narrative and values that our society lives by. From education and the arts to how we eat, think, and play, Michaels asserts that we have been steeped in a single point of view, the economic, where value is reduced to what can be sold and worth is determined by financial expediency. Michael’s writing is clear and sharp as she brings the impact of this pervasive global philosophy down to the personal level, showing how it affects our lives in the everyday.

Michaels spent years researching this book and it shows. This book is packed full of observations and opinions from a wide range of economists, artists, philosophers and scholars, and Michaels introduces each new section of the book with a concise historical context outlining how things once were, how they developed, and how we arrived where we are. Michaels presents a clear argument without resorting to soapboxing, emotional appeals, or badgering. There is no guilt trip here, just a careful deconstruction of philosophical assumptions that too often go unquestioned. And while it is intellectually satisfying, Monoculture is no overbearing academic tome. Michaels’ writing is engaging and accessible for readers with a wide range of ability and interest. This is not a pounded pulpit, but a door opening into a discussion that we as a society badly need to have.

In a time of seemingly constant budget cuts and belt-tightening, this book is a valuable tool in provoking thought and discussion about how we as a society value the arts, education, and health. This is a book I have found myself recommending and lending out time and again as I talk with friends about what constitutes quality of life and what we each seek to gain from life and the world around us. Regardless of your political or philosophical point of view, Monoculture is a valuable discussion-starter in considering the shape of our world.” (Cool Tools).